Almost any dog of any breed can be trained to become a service dog. Yet, there are some service dog breeds that are more popular than others. This is not because of any deficiency per se in the dog, or the breed. But some breeds are more naturally aligned with the physical and mental makeup required of a service dog.
This can include the dog’s physical traits, his or her character, and temper. Therefore, such dogs are more empowered to fit into the role of the service dog. This in turn enables them to perform their tasks faster, and with greater ease.
In terms of physical traits, service dogs must have the strength and endurance to match the needs of their human partners. For instance, they may be required to carry heavy objects from and to their partner. They may also be required to balance and support their owner, thus rendering stability. In some cases, they may even be expected to pull a wheelchair on their own.
Service dogs must be appropriately able-bodied, so they can easily perform these tasks. They also need to be balanced with the right amount of energy, with neither too much of it, nor too little. This allows the dog to stay active for long periods of time, without succumbing to tiredness. At the same time, the dog should also be able to be tranquil and composed when required, in order to best serve the needs of their human partner.
The qualifying trait that distinguishes service dog breeds from others is their trainability. Often, they may be assigned lifesaving duties that demand high stability and reliability on the part of the dog. For this reason, the service dog also needs to be highly intelligent, easily following orders, even as it retains its natural curiosity. These traits will help the dog remain mentally alert, with a strong desire to support its partner. It is these traits that make service dogs an asset to their owner.
Based on historical evidence, there are three dog breeds that stand out in terms of their trainability and suitability for the role of a service dogs. This includes Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and German Shepherds (Megan Leavey’s dog was a German Shepherd). However, these three no longer hold the monopoly as more dog breeds are being included and trained to serve and assist human partners.
Let us take a look at some of the popular dog breeds that are being used at present to perform the role of a service dog.
1. Golden Retrievers
Golden Retrievers steadily remain the number one preferred type among American pet breeds, especially as a service dog. They possess the ideal blend of physical and mental attributes that make for friendly pets, even as they easily fulfill the unique demands of a service dog.
Physically, they can weigh anywhere from 60 to 70 pounds, are about 2 feet tall, and enjoy a substantial lifetime of up to 10-12 years. They typically range in the mid to large size, and can carry heavy weights without much effort (including pulling a wheelchair). They are also easy to maintain, and can digest popular dog foods without any special needs. However, it is recommended for owners to organize for their dogs to be regularly brushed (at least twice a week) to maintain the hygiene and looks of this dog.
Golden Retrievers are also energetically balanced, and can stay active all day without getting hyper. They are comfortable in water and dry easily when wet, so they can even walk and work in the rain. They are also friendly and affectionate in nature, making them safe to be around small children. Their temperament is soothing to others, as they are neither overly dominant, nor excessively submissive. They remain curious even as they look to win their owner’s affection. So they easily obey instructions, and are hence considered an asset to train.
While active Golden Retrievers are known to live long, healthy lives, they are prone to developing diseases like arthritis, congenital heart disease, and cataract during their later years. Owners are advised to not over-exert their loyal Golden Retrievers during their last years. This is a breed that aims to please, and the dog may continue working until exhaustion, unless otherwise interrupted.
Labrador Retrievers share several traits with Golden Retrievers. Both these breeds typically include mid-size dogs (averaging 60 pounds and 2 feet tall but they can easily weight up to a 100 pounds as well). They both live a fairly long life (10+ years). They both love activity, and they are both among the two most sought-after pet breeds across the US.
Labradors are strong enough to double up as service dogs, carrying hefty weights, with the ability to manage wheelchairs on their own. They are especially adopted by the visually impaired, as they make the best companions to lead. They also do not get unusually aggressive, making them popular among adults and children alike (as long as the children behave and do not harass the dog).
These dogs also come in three varied colors, beige-yellow, brown, and black. They also shed less easily than Golden Retrievers, and hence need little maintenance (brushing once a week). Labrador Retrievers were originally trained to assist hunters to fetch game (bird). Therefore, they are also excellent swimmers, and are most useful in terrain and living areas near water. But they should not get into water in Florida since there are alligators there.
Unlike the Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers could get bored easily. But they do not tire easily, and have the physical agility to manage difficult tasks constantly. It is recommended for potential dog owners to carefully consider their capacity to keep the Labrador Retrievers physically and mentally engaged most of the time, before they choose to adopt one as a service dog.
Labrador Retrievers thrive when leading a thoroughly active and busy life. However, they are prone to ear and eye problems during their last years. As they grow old, they can also hurt their joins (like elbows and hip) when unduly strained.
German Shepherds rank as the second most popular breed of service dogs (after Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers). They are not just affectionate, but are also ferociously loyal, making them the perfect service dogs. They are also popular in assisting the armed forces (you can see this, again, in the pretty good movie called Megan Leavey and it is disturbing how evil people can be, if you call them people, considering the terrorists in the Middle East would purposely target these bomb sniffing dogs with their guns and concealed improvised explosive devices), local police, and other agencies of law enforcement.
German Shepherds thrive on challenges. Therefore, they are a favorite with trainers. They were originally raised as “herders” and hence have the natural inclination to lead. This makes them a valuable asset, and a preferred service dog for the visually impaired. They are also strong enough to provide physical support to the owner.
They fall into the large-size category, and can weigh upwards of 80 pounds. They are a little over 2 feet tall and are naturally athletic with their muscles. This gives them an imposing presence. They are most commonly found in three colors, brown, black, and sable. They can withstand cold temperatures, thanks to their double coat. This makes them prone to shedding, and they will require regular grooming.
German Shepherds can live healthy for 11 to 13 years. However, they require constant activity and simulation. During their later years, they can also be prone to skin allergies, if their coat is not duly maintained.
Unlike the Retrievers, German Shepherds can become overly aggressive, especially when they perceive any threat to the owner. They are more watchful than playful, and this temperament needs to align with the owner’s own preference for pet companion. This makes them better guard dogs than service dogs, especially when surrounded by children. It is vital to consider the owner’s ability to control the dog, physically and mentally, when choosing this breed for assistance as a service dog.
Collies are of two types, rough and smooth, based on the texture and density of their coat. They are also among the large-size dogs, weighing an average of 60 pounds, and over 2 feet tall. They came in varied colors, but are most popular in blue, sable, and a tri-color combination.
Collies are largely gentle dogs, much like the Retrievers. Yet, they have a protective streak. While they are not as ferocious as the German Shepherds, owners need to be watchful around them, especially when they sense any danger or discomfort to the owners. Though they are built big (especially their chest area), they are surprisingly agile and graceful. They are also an affectionate breed, and this quality makes them suitable as service dogs.
One trait that does not always align them to being the best service dogs is their stubborn nature. Therefore, training a Collie requires more time and effort than other more popular service dog breeds. However, once it feels settled with the owner, it rewards them with its loyalty and affection.
Like most large size dogs, they can live over 11 years, with minimal health problems. They do enjoy their rest, and do not need to be constantly stimulated. But they will require frequent grooming (especially rough collies), with their coats requiring brushing at least 2-3 times a week.
Poodles fall under the mid-size category of dogs. They are active and agile and surprise people with their excellent work ethic. In fact, they are very obedient and hence easy to train.
Poodles work as good service dogs, as long there are no heavy demands on their physique unlike how the German military treated horses in WWI as depicted in the movie War Horse. They are less than 1.5 feet tall, and weigh an average of 50 to 55 pounds. So while they will not be able to pull wheelchairs or lift hefty material, they can be trained to lead those who are visually or hearing impaired.
Poodles are friendly dogs, but they take time to warm up to new people. It is also for this reason that they serve as good watch dogs for children. They are especially open to children. They have coarse coats. Surprisingly, though they do not shed much, the coats require fairly heavy maintenance.
Poodles work best when the owners are able to provide them constant physical and mental simulation, as well as company. They do not respond well when they are left alone for long periods of time.
Samoyeds look like the bigger versions of the more popular Pomeranians. However, they have an entirely different demeanor. They are native to Siberia and therefore thrive in cold climates. They are also mid-size dogs, weighing 55 pounds at 1.5 feet tall, and hence less recommended for physically strenuous tasks.
It is a recent development for Samoyeds to be trained as service dogs. They have a balanced nature without getting overactive, or over possessive. However, they bond best with the owner, while remaining friendly with other regulars.
Samoyeds can live up to 15 years with the right care. They require frequent to regular grooming, and do not sustain very well in very hot climates. So if you live in Phoenix, this should not be your idea dog choice as well as a black Labrador or Golden Retriever or any black dog for that matter.
Irish Setters are among the new variety of pet breeds to double up as service dogs. They are friendly and obey easily, making them adaptable for service, without risk.
They are large sized dogs weighing over 65 pounds, and over 2 feet tall. They require minimal grooming and maintenance though they do enjoy smooth, shiny coats.
While Irish Setters can be trained as service dogs, owners should note their playful nature. They require a large amount of space to exist comfortably. They also enjoy running at high speed, and require constant physical activity to be happy.
They enjoy a long life up to 15 years. But during the advanced years, they can fall prey to a host of illnesses like epilepsy, skin allergies, arthritis, and eye problems.
Shelties look a lot like Collies, but are significantly smaller. They are just over 1 foot tall, and weigh as little as 18-20 pounds.
Shelties are being increasingly used as service dogs, as they bond well with one primary master (their sole human owner). They are also unusually sensitive to their master, and can hence be of tremendous value when the owners live alone.
However, potential owners need to know that Shelties bark often, and quite nosily. If noise is a problem in your living area, Shelties may not be the best choice for a service dog.
Shelties are a smaller breed, and hence have significant limits on the physical exertion they can endure. However, they are quick and agile and enjoy physical activity. They can form good companions, living for over 14 years. Their downside is that they have a short dense coat that still requires constant grooming, and they do not thrive in hotter climates.
Vizslas are large size dogs, but significantly slimmer than other dogs like the Retrievers and the Golden Shepherd. Over 2 feet tall, they weigh below 55 pounds. This puts a limit to the amount of physical exertion they can comfortably endure.
Vizslas are also friendly dogs with a calm disposition. They are used primarily as guide dogs and not so much as guard dogs. They have a flamboyant nature, and therefore need to be trained well and early in order to retain discipline. But once trained, they are undeniably devoted to the owner.
Vizslas can live up to 14 years, with very little maintenance. However, they do require regular exercise. They are among the rare breeds that are equally comfortable indoors and outdoors. Like the Irish Setters, Vizslas too can be prone to epilepsy attacks during their advanced years, when extra care is required to keep the dog safe and comfortable.
Springer Spaniels are mid-sized dogs lacking physical strength for heavy exertions. But what they lack in physique, they make up with their mental agility. They are sensitive to their owners, and are therefore used as working dogs to protect those prone to epilepsy attacks. They can be trained to reach out for help when the owner is at risk.
Springer Spaniels weigh an average of 45 pounds, and 1.5 feet tall. They need as much attention from their owners as they are willing to give to their owners. Otherwise they can go through bouts of moodiness and other behavior problems. Therefore, owners should consider their living conditions and time off at work when adopting this breed.
They also have long hanging ears, and are prone to ear-related infections and problems. Owners will need to regularly clean their ears to maintain hygiene.
Like other small breed dogs, Welsh Corgis are best suited to work as service dogs, for those who are hearing impaired. They can warn the human partner of potential dangers. They are also very easy and adaptable to training, making them an asset and a valuable pet. However, owners are warned of their possessive and protective instincts. Like German Shepherds, they can get aggressive when they sense threat to owners.
Due to their small size (and elongated body), they need to be carefully handled, physically. They are mentally alert and can live for close to 15 years, providing support and companionship to their owners.
There is no ‘Perfect’ Breed
Ultimately, the value of the service dog comes from the quality of support and assistance it provides to its human partner. There is no perfect breed, and the characteristics of each dog can vary as widely as those of the owner. The best dog type itself can depend on a host of factors linked to its partner, such as their personalized needs, their unique personality, their specific disabilities that require assistance, their financial situation and support system, their ability to care for the dog, and so forth.
It is therefore exceedingly important to choose the right service dog breed according to the unique needs of the disabled person. To maximize the benefits, the individual relationship between the dog and its owner must be nurtured well. It is advisable to seek the services of certified and reputable trainers and breeders to assist in building this long-term, partnership between the service dog and its owner.